This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.
When I started to put this concert together, I knew early on that I wanted a piece by Charlie Sdraulig. I’ve written about his music, briefly, once before on this blog, and the sense of theatre (that isn’t really theatre, it’s just people playing their instruments), the aura of risk and failure, the downright peculiarity of what he does, was something I wanted to get on stage.
But Charlie didn’t actually have a piece yet that fitted the line-up that I was starting to settle on. So he very kindly agreed to produce a new version of close, his trio for shakuhachi, voice and bowed string, that replaces the shakuhachi with a clarinet. And I’m thrilled that we’re getting the first performance of that version.
In the interview below, Charlie talks a little about risk and failure, as well as the relationship of his very quiet music to its surrounding environment. In the performance instructions for the vocal miniature, few, there is a line that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a score before: ‘If the environment changes in a way that makes it impossible to finish the score, abandon the performance.’ Composing in the possibility of abandoning a performance seems such a peculiar idea, but it captures something of the values at work here.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
I never really considered composing to be a career choice, let alone an anachronistic one. It always was and remains a compulsion. As soon as I began to take piano lessons, I began composing and haven’t stopped since! Why do I continue to compose? I am interested in writing music that allows a particular type of human interaction to take place in sound. I aim to create a sound world that is constantly redefining itself, negotiated and under discussion, which potentially allows the fragility and ambiguity of the act of perception to become audible. I hope to create a listening environment of heightened intensity that explores predominately soft sounds in subtly differentiated detail, a situation that may in turn potentially empower a listener to approach their sonic environments in an aware and sensitive way.
TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?
Although my music often takes place at the threshold of audibility, very rarely do I actually compose silences. There is always the potential for sound to occur to a greater or lesser degree. For example, if a performer holds their bow one to two millimetres above a string, their trembling musculature will cause occasional non-intentional contact to be made. However, often no contact takes place at all, leaving only a physical gesture and silence. Manipulating the various parameters involved, such as bow height or speed, will change the risk of sound being produced. As a result, silence often arises when the intention to produce a sound fails and so momentary silences permeate my work. I propose that these fluctuating ratios of sound to silence allow a particular expression of humanity to be communicated by approaching the space between performer and instrument with the utmost care and sensitivity: an acceptance and celebration of human fallibility and individuality.
The more I explore extremely soft sounds, the more I am acutely aware of the ever present ambient sounds in any given environment. Occasionally, my music may have the propensity to act within its own bubble, oblivious to the sonic environment that envelopes it. Composing an extended silence, as an absence in the intention to create sound, could highlight this environment. I am still working out exactly what my relationship with ambient sounds could be and how I could enter in to dialogue with them. Potentially my music could open itself up to interacting with its sonic environment via cues. That said I have also experienced occasions when pieces of extremely quiet music drew me in to the extent that I selectively prioritised what I perceived to be important sounds in the performance space, so that I was largely unaware of sounds extraneous to what I perceived to be the musical text.
In any case, the distinction between sound and silence can be somewhat difficult to determine when listening to sounds at the threshold of audibility. The perceptual ambiguity of these sounds allows each listener to actively construct this distinction, amongst other things, or not.
TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?
The majority of my recent work has primarily explored interaction, such as the interaction between a performer and their instrument, as well as the interaction between one performer and another. I have also been particularly interested in investigating and extending the role of physicality and perception in these interactions. Consequently, many of my compositional decisions relate to specifying the exact nature of the interactions in a given piece.
I always work closely with a performer to find ways of making sounds that allow that particular expression of humanity, which I described earlier, to emerge via an often tenuous interaction between a performer and their instrument. I define physical boundaries that explore the relatively greater or lesser likelihood of a sound actually being produced. Ideally, subtle parametric changes within these boundaries would then create a vast number of micro-variations in that sound.
If I am writing for a small ensemble, the following questions arise: how can I organise sounds created by the unpredictable interaction between a performer and their instrument? How can metre delineate temporal relationships in a context where sounds may be imperceptible or simply not occur at all? Furthermore, beyond purely practical considerations, what do I want the nature of performer to performer interaction to be in my music?
Working as an accompanist, I would occasionally reach an under-rehearsed ritardando, the predictability of the prevailing metre would fall away and a highly contingent form of moment to moment interdependent interaction would occur due to not being able to exactly predict when the other player would act. Essentially, we would aurally cue each other. I found these to be extremely satisfying experiences as a player and, when I perceived them in other people’s performances, as a listener as well. After encountering and experiencing the work of Christian Wolff as well as playing as an improviser, I became more and more interested in the performative alertness and flexibility engendered by sonic contingency.
As a result, I now tend to use various types of cuing that allow temporal and parametric relationships between the parts to be flexibly shaped in real time by each performer’s perception, their listening. Many of my compositional decisions in this domain relate to finding means of cuing between performers that are as tenuous and unstable as the interaction I set up between a performer and their instrument. This could take the shape of something as simple as a question such as ‘is the timbre of the sound of the other player changing at a faster rate than mine?’ and altering different parameters depending on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. In my recent work, I tend to treat time as a context where these interactions mediated by perception (cues) occur within a physical frame (breath or bow lengths).
TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?
At the moment, I very rarely think about pitch with reference to equal temperament. I tend not to specify exact pitches but employ a tablature of some sort. In fact, I usually think about pitch as being relatively high or low, dependent on another element. My pitches generally serve an interactive, physical or perceptual function. For example, at times I use the pitch direction of glissandi as the basis of a cuing system or explore a variety of high breathy whistles due to their inherent sonic and physical instability. So a middle C could potentially occur in the context of a glissando that has a function in a particular cuing system or it might not. Ultimately, I don’t think it would matter very much. Personally, I would rather start by attempting to create an interactive framework that could lead to an environment where active and sensitive listening is prioritised. Everything else would flow from there.
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If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.